I first wrote about cancer long before I was diagnosed with it. In fact, I wrote several columns about it in one way or another: Breast Cancer Awareness Month, my mom, some friends.
Here’s something I said eight years ago in a column about my friend Jean: "Five years cancer-free. It’s the finish line. It’s the big reward that you can’t earn. You either get it or you don’t. In fact, it’s more like the lottery than a reward."
Now I have won that lottery. (And Jean is still fine, by the way.) It’s been five years since my diagnosis, since my surgery, since finishing chemo, and nearly since completing radiation. That last five-year mark is just a couple of weeks away. Even further in the future is the five-year anniversary of the first day I felt like no one was looking at my head, wondering about my hair.
I swear the hair was the worst of it for me. Having no hair for most of a year — and the football buzz cut look that followed and took its sweet time growing out — were mortifying for me. I am in awe of women who brave the stares and go bald.
I’m grateful to friends who put aside their own discomfort to help me. Every time a woman friend would tell me, "Scarves are really in right now!" or, "That Hello Kitty bucket hat makes you look adorable!", I would roll my eyes but also I would feel the love.
A sweet octogenarian man kindly wrote down the name of the shop where his late wife was fitted with her wig. I went to the shop, ignoring conventional wisdom to take a friend along, and got a wig.
I have really thin, fine hair and that’s not how wigs are made. In fact, they’re made to correct problems like those. So the wig seemed ridiculously big and fluffy to me.
In the end, I named it Hermione after the big-haired girl in Harry Potter, wore it twice, cried both times, and put it in the basement.
No matter how undignified the experience of cancer was, no matter how unpleasant, it really wasn’t that bad. Through it all, I was acutely aware that what I was going through wasn’t that tough. People all around us have far more grave diagnoses, or far more serious challenges of all types.
On the bright side, having cancer means no one will let you buy your own lunch and you really don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.
Except go through chemotherapy and wear a bucket hat.
I feel the invisible shoe hanging over me, deciding if or when to drop. For someone who’s had cancer, every knot in the tissue, any catch in the breathing, every inexplicable sore spot or tug of fatigue makes you wonder.
On a basement shelf next to Hermione is a box of mementos from five years ago. Cards, pictures, kids’ drawings, long letters. The weeks-of-chemo countdown numbers that dear friends made for me, each one a work of art. A list of the people who came to our house, bearing meals, bouquets and surprises, the people who endured boring stories about cancer, which is quite interesting but really only when it’s happening to you.
I’ve been torn about whether to celebrate or even mention my milestone. Someone I love buckets and buckets hasn’t made it to five years cancer-free yet, in spite of being diagnosed long before I was. But after my five-year meeting with my oncologist the other day, it was that same friend who said, "That’s awesome! Let’s have a party!"
I am so grateful that she and I are still here. Cheers!
Barb Guy is a regular contributor to these pages. All her published Tribune columns can be found online at barbguy.com.